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Dolly's Bedstead by Louisa M. Alcott

 

"Aunt Pen, where is Ariadne to sleep, please? I wanted to bring her cradle, but mamma said it would take up so much room I could not."

And Alice looked about her for a resting-place for her dolly as anxiously as if Ariadne had been a live baby.

"Can't she lie on the sofa?" asked Aunt Pen, with that sad want of interest in such important matters which grown-up people so often show.

"No, indeed! Some one would sit down on her, of course; and I won't have my darling smashed. You would n't like it yourself, aunty, and I 'm surprised at your proposing such a thing!" cried Alice, clasping her babe with a face full of maternal indignation.

"I beg your pardon! I really forgot that danger. I 'm not so used to infants as you are, and that accounts for it. Now I think of it, there's a little bedstead up garret, and you can have that. You will find it done up in a paper in the great blue chest where all our old toys are kept."

Appeased by Aunt Pen's apology, Alice trotted to the attic, found the bedstead, and came trotting back with a disappointed look on her face.

"It is such a funny, old-fashioned thing I don't know that Ariadne will consent to lie in it. Anyway, I must air the feather-bed and pillows first, or she will get cold. I wish I could wash the sheets too, they are so yellow; but there is no time now," said the little girl, bustling round as she spoke, and laying the little bed-furniture out on the rug.

"Everything is quite clean, my dear; I am sure of that, for I washed the sheets and coverlet myself not long ago, because I found a nest of little mice there the last time I looked," answered Aunt Pen, with her eyes fixed thoughtfully on the small bedstead.

"I guess you used to be fond of it when you were a little girl; and that's why you keep it so nicely now, isn't it?" asked Alice, as she dusted the carved posts and patted the canvas sacking.

"Yes, there's quite a little romance about that bed; and I love it so that I never can give it away, but keep it mended up and in order for the sake of old times and poor Val," said Aunt Pen, smiling and sighing in the same breath.

"Oh, tell about it! I do like to hear stories, and so does Ariadne!" cried Alice, hastily opening dolly's eyes, that she might express her interest in the only way permitted her.

"Well, dear, I 'll tell you this true tale of long ago; and while you listen you can be making a new blanket for the bed. Mrs. Mouse nibbled holes in the other one, and her babies made a mess of it, so I burned it up. Here is a nice little square of flannel, and there are blue, red, and green worsteds for you to work round the edges with."

"Now that is just splendid! I love to work with crewels, and I 'll put little quirls and things in the corners. I can do it all myself, so tell away, please, aunty." And Alice settled herself with great satisfaction, while Ariadne sat bolt upright in her own armchair and stared at Aunt Pen in a way that would have been very embarrassing if her round blue eyes had had a particle of expression in them.

"When I was about ten years old, it was the joy of my heart to go every Saturday afternoon to see my nurse, Betsey Brown. She no longer lived out, but was married to a pilot, and had a home of her own down in what we used to call 'the watery part' of the city. A funny little house, so close to the wharves that when one looked out there were masts going to and fro over the house-tops, and from the upper windows I could see the blue ocean.

"Betsey had a boy with club feet, and a brother who was deformed; but Bobby was my pet playmate, and Valentine my best friend. My chief pleasure was in seeing him work at his turning-lathe, for he was very ingenious, and made all sorts of useful and pretty things.

"But the best thing he did was to cure the lame feet of his little nephew. In those days there were few doctors who attended to such troubles, and they were very expensive; so poor Bobby had gone hobbling about ever since he was born with his little feet turned in.

"Uncle Val could sympathize with him; and though he knew there was no cure for his own crooked back, he did his best to help the boy. He made a very simple apparatus for straightening the crippled feet (just two wooden splints, with wooden screws to loosen or tighten the pressure), and with patience, hope, and faith, he worked over the child till the feet were right, and Bobby could run and play like other children."

"Oh, Aunt Pen, was n't that lovely? And did he really do it all himself? How clever he must have been!" cried Alice, puckering the new blanket in the pleasant interest of the moment.

"He was very clever for a lad of eighteen. But that was not all he did. Bobby's cure was a long one, and I only saw the happy end of it; yet I remember how we all rejoiced, and how proud Betsey was of her brother. My father wrote an account of it for some medical journal, and it was much talked about in our little circle; so much, indeed, that an aunt of ours who had a lame boy came to see Val and talked it all over with him.

"Val was much pleased, and offered to try and cure her son if she would let the boy come and live with him; for it needed great skill and constant care to work the screws just right, and tend the poor little feet gently.

"Aunt Dolly said no at once to that plan; for how could she let her precious boy go and live in that little house down in the poor part of the city?

"There was no other way, however, for Val would not leave his sister and his beloved lathe, and was wise enough to see how impossible it would be to have his own way with the child in a house where every one obeyed his whims and petted him, as such afflicted children usually are petted.

"So Val stood firm, and for a time nothing was done.

"I was much interested in the affair, and every time I saw my cousin Gus I told him what nice times I had down there; how strong and lively Bobby was, and declared my firm belief that Val could cure every disease under the sun.

"These glowing accounts made Gus want to go, and when he set his heart on anything he always got it; so in the end Aunt Dolly consented, and Gus went to board in the little house, much to the wonder of some folks.

"The plan succeeded capitally, however, and Gus thrived like a dandelion in springtime; for simple food, plenty of air, no foolish indulgence, and the most faithful care, built up the little lad in a way that astonished and delighted us all.

"The feet improved slowly; and Val was sure that in time they would be all right, for everything helped on the good work.

"Dear me, what happy days I used to spend at Betsey's! Sometimes Isaac, the jolly, bluff pilot, would take us out in his boat; and then what rosy cheeks and good appetites we got! Sometimes we played in Val's shop, and watched him make pretty things or helped him in some easy job, for he liked to have us near him. And, oh, my heart, what delicious suppers Betsey used to get us in the front room, where all sorts of queer sea treasures were collected,--shells, coral, and seaweed; odd pictures of ships and fish, and old books full of sailor songs and thrilling tales of wrecks."

"I wish I had been there!" interrupted Alice. "Is the house all gone, aunty?"

"All gone, dear, and every one of that merry party but myself," answered Aunt Pen, with a sigh.

"Don't think about the sad part of it, but go on and tell about the bed, please," said Alice, feeling that it was about time this interesting piece of furniture appeared in the story.

"Well, that was made to comfort me when Gus went home, as he did after staying two years. Yes, he went home with straight feet, the heartiest, happiest little lad I ever saw.

"I was heart-broken at losing my playmate, and mourned for him as bitterly as a child could, till Val comforted me, not only by the cunning bedstead for my doll, but by a hundred kindly words and acts, for which I never thanked him half enough.

"Aunt Dolly and my father were so grateful and pleased at Val's success with Gus that they helped him in a plan he had some years later, when he took a larger house in a better place, and with Betsey as nurse, opened a small hospital for the cure of deformed feet. It was an excellent plan; and all was going well, when poor Val wasted rapidly away, and died just as his work began to bring him money and some honor."

"That was very bad! But what became of Bobby and Gus?" asked Alice, who was not of an age to care much about the "sad part" of any story.

"Bob became a sea-captain, and was an excellent fellow till he went down with his ship in a storm after rescuing all his crew, even to the cabin-boy. I'm proud of Bob, and keep those two great pearly shells in memory of him, for he brought them to me after his first voyage."

Aunt Pen's eyes lit up, and her voice rose as she spoke with real pride and affection of honest Captain Brown, who to her was always little Bob.

"I like that, it was so brave and good; but I do wish he had been saved, for then I could have seen him. And maybe he would have brought me a big green parrot that could say funny things. What became of Gus?" asked Alice, after a moment spent in the delightful thought of owning a green parrot with a red tail.

"Ah, my dear, I wish I knew!" exclaimed Aunt Pen, so earnestly that Alice dropped her work, astonished at the change in that usually quiet face.

"Don't tell any more if you 'd rather not," said the little girl, feeling instinctively that she had touched some tender string.

But Aunt Pen only stroked her curly head and went on in a softer tone, with her eyes fixed upon a faded picture that had hung over her work-table ever since Alice could remember.

"I like to tell you, dear, because I want you to love the memory of this old friend of mine. Gus went to sea also, much against his mother's will, for the years spent in the little house near the wharf had given the boy a taste for salt water, and he could not overcome it, though he tried.

"He sailed with Captain Bob all round the world, and would have been with him on that last voyage if a sudden whim had not kept him ashore. More than this we don't know; and for seven years have had no tidings of him. The others give him up, feeling sure that he was lost in the wild hill-country of India, whither he went in search of adventures. I suppose they are right; but I cannot make it true, and still hope to see the dear boy back, or at least to hear some news of him."

"Would n't he be rather an old boy now, Aunt Pen?" asked Alice, softly; for she wanted to chase away the load of pain with a smile if she could.

"Bless my heart, so he would! Forty, at least. Well, well, he never will seem old to me, though his hair should be gray when he comes home." And Aunt Pen did smile as her eyes went back to the faded picture with a tender look that made Alice say timidly, while she laid her blooming cheek against her aunt's hand,--

"Would you mind if I asked if it was Gus who gave you this pretty ring, and was your sweetheart once? Mamma told me you had one, and he was dead; so I must never ask why you did n't marry as she did."

"Yes, he gave me this, and was to come back in a year or two; but I have never seen him since, and never shall, I fear, till we all meet over the great sea at last."

There Aunt Pen broke down, and spreading her hands before her face, sat so still that Alice feared to stir.

Even her careless child's heart was full of pity now; and two great tears rolled down upon the little blanket, to lie sparkling like drops of dew in the heart of the very remarkable red rose she was working in the middle.

Then it was that Ariadne distinguished herself, and proved beyond a doubt that her blue china eyes were worth something. A large, brown, breezy-looking man had been peeping in from the door for several moments, and listening in the most improper manner. No one saw him but Ariadne, and how could she warn the others, poor thing, when she had n't a tongue in her head? Don't tell me that dolls have n't hearts somewhere in their sawdust bosoms! I know better; and I am firmly convinced that Ariadne's was full of sympathy for Aunt Pen; else why should she, a well-bred doll, suddenly and without the least apparent cause, slip out of her chair and fall upon her china nose with a loud whack?

Alice jumped up to catch her darling, and Aunt Pen lifted her head to see what was the matter, and the big brown man, giving his hat a toss, came into the room like a whirlwind!

Alice, Ariadne, bedstead, and blanket, were suddenly swept into a corner by some mysterious means, and lay there in a heap, while the two grown people fell into each other's arms, exclaiming,--

"Pen!"

"Gus!"

I don't know which stared the hardest at this dreadful proceeding, Alice or Ariadne, but I do know that every one was very happy afterward, and that the precious little bedstead was not smashed, for I have seen it with my own eyes.

 
 
 

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